Galen and his works

Who cares to read the works of an doctor of the 2nd century AD?  Well, it doesn’t matter anyway; you can’t!  Not unless you are fluent in Greek at least, anyway.  Do we care?

Those of us who have the “Indiana Jones” approach to lost texts and manuscripts cannot fail to find Galen interesting.  He’s almost a textbook case of how ancient Greek works reached us, via Arabic.  He also has much to say of interest about the way that ancient books were made and traded and forged.  Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars,1 refer to him frequently, and I’ve summarised a few of the bits.  This should whet your appetite!

Ptolemy I sought to fill the library at Alexandria.  He borrowed the official copies of the Attic tragedies from Athens, giving a massive deposit, and then chose to forfeit the deposit and keep the books.  This is recounted by Galen, 17(1).607. In their eagerness to buy all the books that existed, the librarians were frequently deceived into buying forgeries (Galen vol. 15, p. 105).

Galen attributes the confused state of one of the works of Hippocrates to marginal notes being incorporated into the main text by a copyist (vol. 15, p. 624); in vol. 17 (1) p. 634, he notes how a parallel from another writer had been written in a margin, and incorporated in the same manner.3

Galen also was very close to the text critical maxim that the more difficult reading is to be preferred (Corpus medicorum graecorum,p.178, 17-18) where he expresses a preference for old or antiquated words in the text and understands that they would have been changed into something easier if the text had been modified (ibid. 121.17-18).

The Arabic scholars investigated Galen closely, and recent research into Arabic versions has recovered a missing passage from one known text and, better still, proof that an incomprehensible passage in the Greek is because a leaf in an early copy was pulled out and reinserted backwards!  The Nestorian translator, Hunain ibn Ishaq, gives a long list of Galen’s works then extant and considers which had been translated into Syriac, which into Arabic, by whom, when, and where manuscripts of the Greek might be found.  His method of translation involves collating several manuscripts to deal with damage, a trick he learned in part from Galen himself.4

After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, William of Moerbecke became Latin archbishop of Corinth, and translated into Latin some works of Galen not now extant.

In the 19th century Minas Minoides discovered some lost essays of Galen on Mount Athos, which are today Mss. Paris. sup. gr. 634 and 635. 

Interested?  I admit that I am.  I’d like to see those passages of Galen in English.  Indeed I’d like to see that list by Hunain ibn Ishaq.

Sadly no-one has ever been interested in translating Galen.  Initially I could only find one work in translation.  Then John Wilkins of Exeter University in the UK kindly pointed out to me that some selected works were translated by Peter Singer for the Oxford World Classics series in 1997, but that’s it. 

Incidentally the little Oxford World Classics paperback is already out of print, and commanding prices from £31 upwards! This system of making minority-interest texts available in short print run book form with a fierce copyright of life+70 years seems pretty broken to me; the book may exist, but who can read it?  Luckily my local library bought it, so I should be able to get it on ILL, and will report back.

Let us hope that Galen will attract more attention, and more of it online. 

1. 3rd edition, Clarendon Press (1991).    
2.  The reference given in S&S — generally bad on references — is 17(1).607., which tells us little; which work of Galen is this?  Luckily I have the French translation of S&S, D’Homere a Erasme, translated by Pierre Petitmengin who inserted a good few and elucidates.  He gives the reference to the Kühn edition of Galen, Claudii Galeni opera omnia, 1821-33, 20 vols; the ref. is to vol. 17, 1, p.607; I have followed his lead on references above.   There is a review of Kühn’s edition in English here.  The edition is Greek with a Latin translation, and runs to over 20,000 pages!  Vol. 20 is here.
3.  S&S describes Galen as the greatest text-critical scholar of his time, and that W.G.Rutherford, A chapter in the history of annotation, London 1905, pp.47-57 is still worth reading.
4. See J.S.Wilkie, JHS 101 (1981), 145-8; S&S has further bibliography.


One thought on “Galen and his works

  1. Besides the Oxford paperback, there is an English edition of “The Usefulness of the Parts,” one of his longer works, and some single editions of shorter ones have sprinkled into existence–“On Logic” and some others; additionally Loeb has two works of his available.

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